Monday, September 6, 2010 - Page updated at 10:47 AM
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GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Resources for homeownersHomeowners having trouble making their mortgage payment can turn to a few places for assistance.
Treasury Department: Homeowners who want to see if they're eligible for the federal loan-modification program can call 888-995-4673. Or check www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Homeowners with Federal Housing Administration loans who need assistance can call 800-225-5342.
Washington state: Housing counselors are available to help homeowners apply for loan modifications and follow up with servicers. Call the state's foreclosure-prevention hotline: 877- 894-4663.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When he tried to change the terms of his home loan, Michael Guzman was rejected because the bank didn't consider his joblessness a long-term hardship.
Kamie Kahlo's bank offered her a modified mortgage on her Queen Anne home but later told her the lower payments weren't permanent.
And Leslie Oldham was stunned her bank moved to foreclose on her Kent home before it gave her a decision on a loan modification.
"I tried everything I could to work it out with the bank," said Oldham, 58, "because the last thing I wanted to do was file a bankruptcy."
More than a year since President Obama announced an unprecedented national foreclosure-prevention program, many homeowners' experiences with the program have left them feeling frustrated and angry at mortgage servicers.
The program gives servicers financial incentives to permanently lower the monthly payments of homeowners who qualify for and successfully complete a three-month trial period. Servicers can modify a mortgage by lowering the interest rate, extending the loan's terms or deferring payment of principal.
Federal auditors say the Treasury Department has failed to hold banks and other servicers accountable for following the loan-modification program's guidelines, and state regulators say there's little they can do.
Some examples from the Government Accountability Office:
• Delayed decisions: After three months of accepting payments on a modified trial loan, banks are supposed to decide whether to make the new terms permanent. But some banks have a backlog of thousands of homeowners who have been making trial payments for six months or longer.
• Inconsistent treatment: Fifteen of the 20 largest servicers in the program didn't follow federal guidelines for evaluating borrowers' loans and may have treated similarly situated borrowers differently.
• No meaningful appeals: The Treasury does not independently review borrowers' application or loan files, nor does it have clear penalties for servicers who violate the program's rules.
The program was intended to keep 3 million homeowners from foreclosure, but it had produced only about 435,000 permanent modifications through July.
Treasury officials say the program's impact can't be measured by a single statistic. Many homeowners who were deemed ineligible for the federal program have been offered private loan modifications by their servicer.
Still, six of every 10 seriously delinquent borrowers are not getting help, according to a new study by the State Foreclosure Prevention Working Group. Struggling homeowners are alienated by the mixed messages and long delays, the group said, and almost three-quarters of modified mortgages leave borrowers owing more, not less.
"That is not a sustainable solution," said Roberto Quercia, who consulted on the study and is director of the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "For people underwater, making the hole deeper is a recipe for disaster."
In March 2009, Treasury officials launched the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), its cornerstone effort to rescue the nation's housing market, in which property values have fallen at a rate not seen since the Great Depression.
Homeowners must pass three tests to be considered: First, they must have an eligible hardship, such as unemployment. Second, their mortgage must exceed 31 percent of their gross monthly income.
Finally, the bank applies a "net present value" test to see if it will lose more money from foreclosing on their home than from modifying the mortgage.
Through July, homeowners in the program saw a median 36 percent, or more than $500, savings in their monthly payment after permanent modification, according to the Treasury.
But the number of homeowners making trial payments who were dropped from the program — more than 600,000 — now exceeds the number with permanent modifications.
"Paperwork has been the No. 1 reason homeowners have not been able to convert to permanent modifications," Treasury spokeswoman Andrea Risotto said.
The second most common reason, she said, is that homeowners are unable to keep up with payments during the trial period.
Housing counselors and lawyers for homeowners say servicers misplace documents or wrongly reject eligible applicants for no good reason — even after they've made trial payments for six months or longer.
"The servicers are claiming that the files are a mess or are incomplete," said Marc Cote, a housing counselor who coordinates Washington state's foreclosure-prevention hotline. "We have confirmation the fax was received. Then you call back in two days and there's no record of it. That's not uncommon."
Regulators at the state Department of Financial Institutions say they've been flooded with consumer complaints about mortgage issues — such as banks failing to properly credit homeowners for payments.
Department director Scott Jarvis says a series of federal court decisions since 2002 has made it nearly impossible for regulators to force national banks and thrifts to comply with state consumer-protection laws.
"It's a massive shell game," Jarvis said. "The pea is the consumer, and the consumer ends up getting shuffled around the shells and rarely gets anything resolved."
For their part, big banks and other servicers say they're helping distressed borrowers, while being fair to the majority of homeowners who pay their mortgages on time.
This year, Chase opened a loan-modification office in Tukwila that focuses on screening homeowners with Chase mortgages in Washington and Oregon.
And a coalition of big banks recently announced support for a Web portal called HOPE LoanPort that housing counselors can use to submit complete applications, verify their receipt and get status updates.
"In the end I think we all share a common goal, which is to help as many customers as possible stay in their homes," said Rebecca Mairone, Bank of America's national default-servicing executive.
Left in limbo
Cote, the housing counselor, recounts this story: On Aug. 6, a national bank told an elderly owner of an Issaquah house that her application for loan assistance — submitted March 3 — was still under review.
A week later, a trustee let the bank repossess the woman's house. The bank had denied the woman's application but never notified her in writing, as required.
"They're violating the guidelines," said Cote, whose agency doesn't allow him to identify the national bank.
Some Seattle-area homeowners echo Cote.
Guzman, of Lake Stevens, has been unemployed for more than two years and was told — incorrectly — by Chase last year that his joblessness did not count as a permanent hardship.
"Servicers continue to evolve their implementation of HAMP," Chase said in a statement.
Moreover, Chase said, it asked Guzman to reapply for loan assistance, but he has refused.
Guzman said he's already submitted paperwork three times.
"Millions of people have gone through this wringer like I have," he said.
Kahlo, who bought her Queen Anne home in 1999, said she did everything Bank of America asked her to do to qualify for relief under the federal program.
After the bank told her it wasn't permanently modifying her mortgage, she sued, alleging it had violated the federal program's rules.
Bank of America sought to dismiss the suit, saying the lower monthly payment it offered her was an alternative to the federal program.
"A participating servicer is not required to modify every HAMP-eligible loan," the bank stated in court.
Without a permanent modification, Kahlo says, she's in limbo. "I don't know if I'm sleeping in their home or my home," she said.
Declaring bankruptcy was a last resort for Oldham, a widow in Kent who manages payroll for a small construction company.
But she believed she had no recourse because Bank of America foreclosed on the manufactured home she's lived in for 15 years.
Oldham said she got behind on her mortgage because of medical bills.
She applied for a modification last year, but the bank tacked a foreclosure notice on her door before she received an answer.
Oldham complained to the state Attorney General's Office, which passed her on to the state Department of Financial Institutions. That department routinely forwards such complaints — about 540 so far this year — to federal regulators.
With Oldham, though, the state department lost track of her complaint, finally sending it along last month.
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or email@example.com
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